During the recent Salmon Falls 50k race, I had a fun interaction with a couple older runners. These two guys were teasing me on the trail that I had blocked them out of the group photo at the race start. I’m 6’3″ and that does tend to happen. I chastised them back by mentioning that the race director (RD) asked me to stand tall to improve the handsomeness of the photo and block some of the riffraff. A little later on in the race, these guys confidently jogged past me as I was struggling to power hike a low-incline hill. Again they gave me grief about blocking them out of the photo. This time I told them I was about to take a nap, but I’d catch up to them later on. I mentioned that the RD also asked me to spend some time at the finish line to improve the race finish photos for all the old guys. We shared a laugh and away they went. That was around mile twelve. I never saw them again.
In January, I was running around the Willamette bridge loop. An old guy caught up to me and seemed to slow for a moment. He gave me a glance and then took off. I recognized the challenge and stayed on his heels. I managed to keep up with him for three full miles before we went our separate ways. A quick wave and I headed for the Hawthorne Bridge and home. Throughout the run, I was watching his stride. It seemed effortless. He didn’t bounce with each step like I did. He never seemed to take a quick breath. Just long, slow breaths and the most consistent pace ever. No headphones. No distractions. Just blasting around the river and taking me to school. I felt fortunate to recognize his fluidity and effortless stride and consistent gait.
That’s the same thing that struck me about the old guys at the Salmon Falls race. Super consistent and effortless. They joked with everybody they passed. The last time I spoke to them, I was nearly gasping.
Now, a qualification. I say “old guys” with utmost respect. These men were all in their upper 50s or lower 60s. At 36 years old, I’m still referred to as “kid” by a lot of old guys I see on the trail. When I say old, I don’t mean it in any derogatory way. Having just started my running habit fewer than three years ago, I know I’m still a beginner and have much to learn. I am hungry to improve and I read books and blogs constantly looking for any tips. I study my successes and failures on race day in order to remedy nutrition and hydration errors. Every training run and every race is an opportunity to get better.
Without further ado, here are the running lessons I’ve learned from old guys. To be fair, some of these lessons have also been reinforced by older women I’ve met on the trail. Running wisdom obviously isn’t exclusive to one gender.
- Set a comfortable pace and stick with it. I have a terrible habit of going out really strong on race day, only to hit a wall. I wind up walking as much as running during the second half of many races. When I get skunked by old guys in races, it’s because they have their pace dialed in. They’ve been training on long runs at that same pace they’ll use on race day. They don’t get caught up in the moment. They don’t spike their heart rate trying to separate from the pack on a long uphill. They don’t see people passing them early on and panic. Old runners stick to the plan. The endurance running adage goes something like this: start out slow and then go slower.
- Move efficiently. This was a difficult lesson for me to learn. It took months of physical therapy to iron out my erratic running motion. I bounced when I ran, wasting precious power vertically that could have been used to propel me forward. I never fully extended my legs behind me, which was robbing me of the power of toe-off and stunting the forward continuous rotation of my legs. I wasn’t twisting my hips at all, which was forcing my legs to land out in front of my torso and making balancing more difficult. A proper stride should feel natural and somewhat effortless, but it doesn’t come easy for many of us. From heel strike to slouching at the shoulders, so many of us are guilty of allowing bad habits to rob us of speed and endurance.
- Never deviate from your nutrition and hydration plan. At the second aid station I arrived at during a recent 50k, an older volunteer asked me if I was eating enough. He had the build of a runner, but I just assumed he was being silly. I was only an hour into the race. How many calories could I possibly have consumed so far? It turns out that my nutrition was way off. I should have been taking in more than 200 calories per hour on race day. Up to that second aid station, I had taken in nothing but water. It sounds like such a rookie mistake, but when you feel good at the beginning of a race, you can get caught up in the moment. I didn’t want to slow down to take in a gel or stop for a handful of potato chips at the first station. I bonked hard in that race, even though I felt that my training had been perfect. It wasn’t my fitness level. It was my terrible nutrition choices on race day. I’ve recently been working with liquid nutrition, like Tailwind. Sip every 10 minutes, supplement calories with gels or potatoes. I’m excited to try it out on race day.
- Train with a partner. Or two. Or ten. I rarely see old guys running by themselves on the weekend. Perhaps they do during the week. But when it comes to long training runs, they run in pairs or groups. And on race day, there they are. Running together at an agreed-upon pace that they know will work. They check each other’s effort and nutrition. And sometimes, they talk about where they like to go for pancakes after a run and they make your stomach growl during a 50k race. It’s harder to shorten a training run when you have a partner who will push you. It’s easier to make it through a difficult training run or race when you have someone who will joke with you and provide encouragement. During my most recent race, I listened to two older women discussing their running group. “Danny is in Mexico, but Ray is around. He’s still dealing with a quad issue from that 25k run.” They went through the rundown of their entire running group. It was clear that they cared about those other runners and wanted to see them succeed. That kind of encouragement on a regular basis is priceless.
- Leave the ladies alone. This lesson is one that I never struggled with, but one I felt obligated to call out anyhow. I’ve been in multiple races where groups of guys were running together and they had something to say to everybody who ran past. It’s all fun and games with other men, generally. But for some reason, every woman that ran near them got a fair share of mysogynistic nonsense. Comments about looks, short shorts, tight clothing and even sexual overtures make you sound like an idiot. Whether this is a generational thing or just a small cross section of morons who have infiltrated the running world, don’t be one of these jackasses. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about endurance running, it’s that distance levels the playing field. The longer the race, the more likely that women will finish as well as men. My massage therapist recently noted that of her husband and wife clients, men are the babies and women are the ones with higher pain thresholds. Let’s stop eyeing women as “the fairer sex” when we’re out running and start seeing them for what they really are: hardworking competitors who deserve respect. Let’s keep the catcalling out of our sport.
Those are my top five lessons learned from old guys. I’m sure there are way more lessons that I’ll come to recognize in time. What did I miss in this list? Have you picked up any nuggets of wisdom or helpful advice from an older runner? Comment to let me know.